A blog on the Welsh Premier League following The New Saints’ victory over Port Talbot Town.
A goal from substitute Jamie Mullan proved to be the difference between The New Saints and Port Talbot Town on Sunday as the Dafabet Welsh Premier League champions extended their lead at the top of the table to eleven points. However, what the match facts and stats fail to show that it was a superb save from goalkeeper Paul Harrison at the other end in the final few moments that prevented Andy Dyer’s side claiming a share of the points. The respective league positions of the two clubs suggest differing agendas for the remainder of the season, but in reality both are very much still in the mix for a place in the UEFA Europa League, even if the Saints have loftier levels of expectancy in returning to the UEFA Champions League by holding onto their current position in the table.
It proved to be a memorable summer for The New Saints. Once again the Dafabet Welsh Premier League champions competed in the UEFA Champions League, but this time made progress with a comfortable victory over B36 Tórshavn of the Faroe Islands before losing out to famous Hungarian outfit Videoton in a tie that was eventually decided in extra-time. Although their Europe campaign was relatively short, it proved extremely lucrative, with the prize money for competing in UEFA’s premier club competition sufficient to ensure that Craig Harrison’s side remain dominant on the domestic stage. Once again, the side have opened up a convincing lead at the top of the table, and another Champions League campaign next summer already appears to be a formality. However, if a club from the Welsh Premier League are to make an impression in Europe, it may be time for the Saints to take a step back in order to take a giant leap forward.
While The New Saints were enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame in the Champions League this summer, Newtown, Bala Town and Airbus UK Broughton were doing the same in the Europa League. Although the prize money for this second competition has increased, it falls short of what The New Saints can potentially earn, but does offer a better chance of progression. Newtown enjoyed a superb victory over Maltese side Valletta, but were eventually eliminated by Danish giants Copenhagen, despite putting in a spirited performance. Meanwhile, Bala Town were knocked-out in injury-time against FC Differdange, and Airbus UK Broughton gained a very creditable draw in Croatia. Mike Harris, the outspoken owner of The New Saints, has highlighted the need for a club from the Welsh Premier League to progress to the group stages of either competition, and it is his side that have the very best chance of doing so.
However, in order for The New Saints to have a realistic chance of reaching the group stages, they need to compete in the Europa League. The Champions League offers a route to the Europa League play-offs, but more progress than the Saints made this season is required. In 2010, The New Saints almost made history when their progress in the Champions League enabled them to qualify for the Europa League play-offs, but they were eliminated by CSKA Sofia. It was a brave performance by The New Saints, who held the Bulgarians to a 2-2 draw at Wrexham in the return leg, but a 3-0 reverse in the first game proved to be the deciding factor. This summer was the first time that The New Saints had made progress in Europe since 2011, but with progress continually being made by the Welsh Premier League, it is unlikely that the side will need to wait another four years before experiencing the same European highs.
What makes the situation frustrating is that The New Saints would have half a chance of making sufficient progress in the Europa League to qualify for the group stages, but their domestic dominance prevents them from qualifying for the lesser of the two competitions. Although the Champions League is the more profitable of the two, riches in the region of millions is the potential reward for progression through the Europa League group stage, and while such an achievement would be undoubtedly difficult it is not beyond the realms of possibility for a full-time team such as The New Saints. The luck of the draw would also be key, and it is worth noting that the last time The New Saints competed in the Europa League in 2011, they defeated Irish side Cliftonville in the opening round.
And it is Irish football and 2011 that makes the dream a viable proposition. Four years ago Shamrock Rovers became the first Irish side to reach the group stages of the Europa League. A dream group stage draw paired the side with Tottenham Hotspur and the profile of the club, as well as the Irish league, reached an unparalleled level. The Welsh Premier League is regularly compared against the Irish leagues as a yardstick for quality, and our clubs have a decent record of results against Irish teams in both competitive and friendly fixtures. Mike Harris has a passionate belief that qualification for the group stage of UEFA competition would be the biggest step forward for the Welsh Premier League, and while he would love his own club to turn such a dream into reality, it is their domestic success that actually makes it all the more difficult to achieve.
But while Port Talbot Town dream of a return to the European stage having experienced such highs in 2010, the hard facts don’t lie. Currently tenth in the table, recent results have been in direct contrast to the early season form that saw Andy Dyer’s side come close to topping the league table on more than one occasion, but now the focus has swiftly turned to the fortunes of the clubs immediately below them, and there aren’t that many. But Dyer and his backroom team have worked around the clock to address the decline, and the arrival of former Swansea City stalwart Alan Tate has offered a visible confidence boost in the two fixtures that he has played for the club. In addition, attendances at the GenQuip Stadium have noticeably increased since the defender became a high-profile signing for the club and the league, with a few curious new faces being introduced to the Welsh Premier League for the first time in order to see the Swansea City favourite in his current form.
Although Andy Dyer’s side will see Tate’s arrival as a turning point in the season after a run of bad results and performances, it is the competitive nature of the current Welsh Premier League campaign that means that no club can be complacent about staying up. Usually at this stage of the season it is possible to single at least one club that are likely to find themselves rooted to the bottom two places of the table, and while Rhyl are currently occupying one of those two unenviable places, their 3-0 victory at Port Talbot Town and a creditable draw at The New Saints a few weeks ago suggests they have the potential to play their way out of trouble. Meanwhile, GAP Connah’s Quay have addressed their slow start with a change of manager, and newcomers Haverfordwest have a number of key players due to return form injury to show that they have bigger ambitions than to make up the Welsh Premier League numbers.
A couple of wins can change everything, and that is exactly what Port Talbot Town now need to do. In January, the mid-season split will decide which six clubs will be left to scrap it out at the bottom in order to avoid finishing the campaign in one of the two relegation places. Port Talbot Town are currently in that group of six, and that was not the ambition when Andy Dyer assembled his squad during the summer months. Circumstances outside of Dyer’s control have dented his selection plans, but now is the time for those named to step-up and take responsibility for the lack of form that has put the side in that position. Alan Tate appears to have adapted well to playing in the Welsh Premier League and that could prove crucial, but his arrival is not a knee-jerk reaction, as Dyer has been courting his services for a number of months.
But as while both The New Saints and Port Talbot Town occupy positions at opposing ends of the table, their competitive fixture on Sunday defined everything that has made this Welsh Premier League season so interesting. It has become impossible to predict as each and every club remain in contention for a European place, and the lack of guaranteed results has proved the current league format to be a success in this area alone. Newcomers Llandudno are the surprise package current on the heels of the league leaders in what continues to be the most unpredictable season in the history of the domestic top-flight, and they have laughed off pre-season suggestions that they would struggle, while their crowds confirm that there is an interest in the fortunes of the club in the top division. Although denying The New Saints a UEFA Champions League place may be beyond their reach, they are currently the best placed club to do so, and there are sure to be further twists before the final positions are decided in April.